Saxophone and Picnic Basket - October Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony / by Sarah Manning

 It's been a little while now since I've returned from the MacDowell Colony.  For the first time in my life, I had a studio to call my own and no obligations except to just do what I do as a saxophonist and composer for a couple of weeks in the New Hampshire autumn. And what a studio it was! I'm immensely grateful for the experience and honored to be a part of such a storied artist colony. A beautiful old Steinway, a rocking chair, a fireplace, and an electric tea kettle. Three meals a day provided by a wonderful kitchen who found interesting combinations of foods to accommodate me as a longtime vegan. Lunch, delivered to my studio and left behind the screen door on my porch.

After breakfast with the other Fellows, -  composers, writers, sculptors, painters and performance artists - I headed a mile through the woods to my studio to burn incense and make Oolong tea. Mornings began with saxophone practice, bringing long tones to the stillness of the woods as I got warmed up, and later in the morning I migrated to the piano to write.

By the time my picnic basket arrived, I was usually playing some new idea on the horn or huddled over the Steinway, playing a phrase of a work over and over until the melody led me further into the composition. Among many other things that naturally arise when you have a whole day in front of you to compose, I learned that composing could mean rocking under a blanket in my rocking chair with a cup of tea, or arranging rocks in my front yard in an inspiring way as music gently rose to the front of my mind in a form I could get on the page. A barn owl, drawing me out to its tree in the late afternoon one day, led me to an unexpected melody the next as I played in front of the window where I had first spotted it, and pondered if it would come back.

Adding to the peaceful woods - at times frightening in the total darkness of night - where I saw a bear, coyote, porcupine, yellow spotted salamander and various other creatures, was the atmosphere of the studio itself, where Aaron Copland had stayed in 1956 and presumably played the very same old Steinway. My writing at MacDowell was focused on material for an upcoming record for Posi-Tone featuring alto saxophone, Eyvind Kang on viola, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Rene Hart on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums. Not able to ignore the presence of Copland, the first work I wrote, "Copland on Cornelia Street", draws inspiration from the wide and bright intervals Copland used and that lend his work a distinctly American character. The title comes from thinking of the composer headed down the stairs to NYC's Cornelia Street Cafe, perhaps with a hat pulled low, enthralled with the sounds of jazz and avant garde new music developing outside the concert hall.

 In the evenings after dinner, my colleagues would present their work to each other in the form of open studios, readings, film, audio and slideshows. With all the different disciplines at MacDowell, what linked us was a mutual fascination with the creative process. After each presentation, fellows would ask challenging questions about the work, and many of us found that the next day in our own studios, seeing ideas from a different perspective helped our own work form in a new and exciting way. They felt like family, and inspired and bolstered in a interdisciplinary academic way that I hadn't felt in a long time.

 While leaving MacDowell was one of the harder goodbyes I've ever had, one thing is clear:  Despite the distractions and necessary difficulties of everyday living, I have a new awareness of myself as a saxophonist and composer. Quite simply, this is what I do. I recommit myself to a life of continuous striving and learning, and as I brew tea in my new electric kettle at my practice studio here in the real world, I vow to keep an eye out for the owls and salamanders that take the creative process away from so much self scrutiny, and instead show it as a natural reflection of the world around us.